Humanising Historians: Stephen Kenny

Posted on: 9 October 2023 by Stephen Kenny in 2023 posts

Stephen Kenny and MA International Slavery Students – Kwame Amoah-Boateng, Taylar Charles, Emma-Leigh McCabe and Aisha Taylor Duran met with Professor Stephen Berry (Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era, Department of History, University of Georgia)standing in a line smiling and facing the camera
Stephen Kenny (by window) and MA International Slavery Students – Kwame Amoah-Boateng, Taylar Charles, Emma-Leigh McCabe and Aisha Taylor Duran met with Professor Stephen Berry (Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era, Department of History, University of Georgia) in June.

In this month's Humanising Historians blog, Stephen Kenny discusses his academic life, including his remarkable journey from the United States to Liverpool. Stephen also discusses his personal history, passion for history and social justice, literary interests, and even some of his favourite hobbies.

How did you end up at Liverpool?

Well … it’s happened twice! On the second occasion (in a heavily redacted account that leans lightly on the personal pronoun) it followed on from seven years spent as an alien resident of the United States - in South Carolina, then Memphis, and finally New Orleans – prior to taking up/battling for the current post here at the University. Along the way, the time in the U.S. was spent working in various roles, including: organic grocery store clerk, library assistant, running store operative in two locations and – eventually – an adjunct History professor at the University of New Orleans. This autobiographical fragment would, quite typically, have read differently at various points in the personal past and is most surely unrevealing in many respects.

What ignited your interest in history and your field?

At the earlier stages of the educational journey, social history was of great appeal, connecting with and helping to make sense of the human, economic, and environmental damage inflicted on the Northwest of England, especially in the context of the late 1970s through to the mid- 1980s. Having opted for an American Studies degree, at the University of Hull, the programme offered not only excellent courses on histories of the Black experience under slavery, segregation and in the ‘classic phase’ of the Civil Rights era, the history of women in the U.S., and the history of immigration, but also modernist/experimental American literature, visual art and film. At the time, modernist painting and poetry was of great appeal and Professor John Osborne at the University of Hull hosted an excellent series of poetry readings, as well as the Bête Noire magazine featuring celebrated American independents such as Fred Voss. The degree came with the substantial bonus of a year on exchange, which was spent in Columbia, South Carolina, at the University of South Carolina (USC) - others on the programme went elsewhere, choosing from a seemingly endless list of options. At USC, Professor Thavolia Glymph offered a superb course on African American History, Professor Phyllis Fleischer taught an inspiring early evening class that introduced the tradition of the short story in the American South, and Professor Edward Beardsley provided a robust, engaging and often demanding introduction to the history of science, technology and medicine in the United States. This rich and stimulating mix of courses provided a sound and relevant foundation for undergraduate dissertation research in the South Caroliniana library, mining the records for traces of the life and career of James Marion Sims, interest in this topic having been provoked by the incongruous statue celebrating him on the city’s State House grounds. That project still isn’t finished and grew into related lines of enquiry that helped position and make sense of Sims as a typical physician slaveholder who was wholly representative of the larger profession, being active in and dependent on chattel slavery’s system of human trafficking and exploitation.

Who inspires you?

Probably a difficult question for all, but perhaps more so for strange humans of a certain vintage. Hmmm … The list is long and ever-changing, as they all say, but, in most recent times, inspirational public figures would have to include the American civil and human rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). One block away from the EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the Mothers of Gynecology Monument, which honors the lives of the enslaved and trafficked women who were used as experimental human research subjects by Sims. The exemplary memorial work of the artist, activist, public historian Michelle Browder now extends to a mind-blowing transformation of the site of Sims’ former office and hospital for enslaved people into a Health and Wellness Museum and Clinic.

What are you currently reading and why?

As with most anyone else, of course, there are usually a number of books on the go, across various genres, and the reasons for reading are pragmatic, developmental, to maintain a measure of stability, as well as for sheer pleasure and escape. Most recently, the American author Jess Walter’s short-story collection, Angel of Rome has provided comfort, avoidance and inspiration in equal measure, after having greatly enjoyed his novel Beautiful Ruins almost a decade earlier. Also ‘on the go’ at the moment are Wanda Coleman’s collected poems, Wicked Enchantment, which are by turns challenging, delightful and unsettling, and Tina Campt’s stimulating A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See, which was repeatedly recommended during the opening weekend of this summer’s superb Liverpool Biennial ‘uMoya: the Sacred Return of Lost Things’. A chunky tome that is currently being savoured and read solely for pleasure is Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers.

What kind of TV programmes interest you and why? Any guilty pleasures?

Having unsubscribed from Netflix in January there may not be much to say here … about a previous obsession with southern noir (for example, True Detective series one). One screen genre that seems tolerable and useful is the social justice documentary. At the beginning of the year, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a biographical documentary on the photographer and activist, Nan Goldin, was on at FACT. The University Library system provides access to the Kanopy streaming platform, which offers a great alternative to TV and a wide variety of options covering a range of urgent issues. So, no pleasures and no guilt, just porridge.

How about music?

Favourites over time have included: Two Tone bands, such as The Specials; local ‘indie pop’, such as Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division/New Order; and electronic music, such as Kraftwerk, Orbital and The Asphodells. From 1994 onwards, have spent otherwise precious time, on and off, listening to Nick Cave, Bjork, southern hip hop, Gus Gus, Quadbike Stowaway, and the Magnetic Fields. New mixtapes and suggested playlists most welcome.

What do you like to do to switch off as a hobby – if you have any?

Running, though don’t race as often as in past lives; engaging with quality assured movies and exhibitions, and maintaining ‘top-dog’ status in veterans category ‘no touch/go slow’ cage-fighting, and the occasional journey, to somewhere else.